The Morning Washing: Clean and Holy Hands
Negel Vasser and Netilat Yadayim
כל אדם הקם |
ממטתו שחרית, |
בין עשה צרכיו בין לא עשה צרכיו – |
צריך לרחוץ ידיו |
ברביעית הלוג מים מן |
ואפילו אינו רוצה להתפלל עד |
לאחר כמה שעות, |
לפי שכל אדם כשהקב“ה |
מחזיר לו נשמתו |
נעשה כבריה חדשה |
“חדשים לבקרים כו,” |
שהאדם מפקיד נשמתו עייפה, |
מחזיר לו |
חדשה ורגועה, |
כדי לעבוד להשי“ת |
בכל יכולתו, ולשרתו כל היום, |
כי זה כל האדם לפיכך |
צריכים אנחנו להתקדש |
וליטול ידינו מן הכלי, |
כדי לעבוד עבודתו ולשרתו, |
כמו כהן שהיה מקדש |
ידיו מן הכיור |
בכל יום קודם עבודתו. |
וכיון שצריך לטל ידיו מן |
הכלי דוקא, |
לכן יברך “על נטלית ידים,” |
ולא “על ריחיצת ידים,” |
מפני שהכלי |
שממנו נוטלין לידים – |
נקרע “נטלא” בלשון חז“ל, |
לכן תקנו בברכה זו |
לשון נטילה, |
להורות דצריך כלי. |
“Anyone who rises
from his bed in the morning
whether he relieves himself or does not –
he needs to wash his hands
with a quarter of a lug of water
from a vessel.
Even if he does not intend to prayer
for several hours.
Considering that the Holy One, blessed be He,
He returns his soul;
becoming a newly-created being.
As it is written,
“They are new every morning…”
(Lamentation 3:23) [At night]
A person entrusts his weary soul to him
and the Holy One, blessed be He,
returns it to him [in the morning]
new and refreshed.
in any capacity, and serve him all day,
for this is the entire purpose of man 
We should therefore sanctify ourselves in
taking our hands with a vessel,
to carry out his duty and service
Like a priests who would sanctify
his hands from the Lavern
everyday before his service.
Having taken his hand with
an actual vessel
therefore bless [with] “al netilat yadayim”
(Heb. “to take the hands”)
and not “al rechitzat yadayim”
(Heb. “to wash the hands”)
because the vessel
from which one takes the hands
is called a Natla in the words of the Sages.
By them fixing this blessing
with the word netilah
Shulchan Aruch haRav 4:1 – Helichot Netilat Yadayim –
The Laws Regarding the Sanctification of the Hands
I have to admit, this topic is one that is of such difficulty and can easily bring so much controversy regarding it that I have been very hesitant in approaching this next piece. But it is absolutely necessary to deal with this topic before we move on. I don’t want to debate out the controversies, but I do want to give explanation to the rituals of washing in context of the Nusach haAri z”l. This might differ in some respects from the normative traditions known by Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike as many personal customs and chumras have complicated how different communities approach this custom. I will present the simple and straight forward approach, relying on elements of practice and Jewish law taken from the urging of chachaimim (scholars) of both traditions.
Previously we began our studies with the topic of Modeh Ani, of giving thanks to G-d immediately upon awakening. As we learned one of the unique features about the prayer is that it intentionally does not make use of any of the seven Divine Names before washing, these are the scriptural names which should not be erased:  They are:
El, Elohim, Adonai, YHVH, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh, Shaddai, and Hashem Tzevaot
If we have slept at all unclothed one needs to wash. The reason is because the sages teach us that when we sleep a spirit of uncleanliness, an unenlightening consciousness comes over the body in the absence of our conscious self. According to the Zohar there is a residue of this unclean spirit that remains on the tips of the fingers that should removed by washing (Zohar, Vayishlach). For practical reason, this also is a good practice because one might have touched unclean parts of their body during the night, before touching any other parts of our body especially the orifices of the body, one should first wash. By washing one shows the immediate need to care for oneself, but also to approach our walk and practice before G-d with pure intentions. Based on this it is the Kabbalistic custom to not walk outside of ones reshut hayachid – their personal space, or own domain – without washing; the span of four amot (about 6-feet; or 2 – 2.3-meters).
Washing is one of the most misunderstood of all the mitzvot (commandments). Most often the reason is because people misunderstand exactly why we are washing. This is because washing has had different applications at different points in history. And because there are different types of washing during the day. We need to look at both topics to understand which instance we are actually speaking about here.
The Biblical Significance of Washing
One of the earliest examples we have in the scriptures of ritual washing takes place in the context of the Mishkan – the Tabernacle sanctuary. Before the priests entered into the holy confines of the Temple complex to worship they would wash in the copper Lavern that stood inside the courtyard (see Exodus 30:17-21, 38:8). This ritual purification was as a sign of preparing oneself in order to worship. Likewise even sacrifices that were going to be offered on the altar were washed, washing serves as a symbol of preparing something for sacred use.
Now there are other examples biblically of washing; washing for reason of impurity. This is the most often known reason, often enumerated in the mitzvot of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. When one is ritually unclean for some type of sin or affliction they are to wash their hands, wash his clothes, then bath and they are unclean for a certain amount of time (example, Leviticus 15:11). Because this topic comes up so often, it is often thought of as the only reason that people of the bible washed. People often associate all washing with removing illness and for reason of cleanliness.
However, this is not the case here when we wash our hands in the morning. Simply put the biblical form of washing and bathing is to make someone ritually pure, to remove tumah that would prohibit them from being able to enter into the Holy Temple. Since the Temple does not stand today, and we have no means of attaining true ritual purity through its rites, we are not concerned with ritual purity to the same extent (as we see this is a full washing of ones hands, feet and clothing; as well as full and complete ablution, immersion in a stream). All of us until the future Temple is rebuilt are in a state of general impurity, but as we don’t utilize the Temple rituals this is without consequence to us.
Secondly, if we consider it, obviously a person that was subject to tumah impurity could not ascent to the Temple complex anyhow. Until they were pure again, no matter how many times they washed their hands, they could not go up into the sacred places until the days or even weeks of their quarantine passed. Thus the biblical washing in the courtyard is undoubtedly something all together different.
The reason we wash is not to somehow elevate ourselves out of impurity necessarily, but to elevate our mindset through an act of devotion. When we consider this the words of the Psalm of David make sense:
“I will wash my hands in innocence,
and so will I surround Your altar, Hashem.”
| Eirchatz b’nikayon kafi
| vaasov’vah et-mizbachach Hashem
We wash our hands as an act of purifying ourselves for divine service, as we wash our hands we are doing so with intention of coming before G-d with a pure and innocent heart. This is further explained to us by the Psalms as well:
“Who shall ascend
into the mountain of Hashem,
and who shall stand in His holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”
| Mi ya’aleh
| b’har Hashem;
| u’mi-yakum bimekom kadosho.
| N’eki chapaim u-var leyvav.
Our clean hands are symbols of our innocence, hands free of innocent blood and the stains of wrong doing.
The Rabbinic History and Law Regarding Washing
One of the reasons this washing in the morning is often misunderstood and people debate the practices related to it is because we don’t have a great deal of Talmud writing regarding this practice of morning washing. Though we will find extensive writing regarding the washings of the priests, the washing of sacrifices, immersions of vessels and people in the mikveh, and washing before and after meals; we will be left with a lot of ambiguity relating to morning washing. This would be something that would be dealt with in clarity by the later halachic writings from the Shulchan Aruch in the 16th century on, but this specific morning washing we are talking about is not a major rabbinic topic in Talmudic times.
The most closely related form of washing from the Talmud, the example that stick out in peoples mind the most when it comes to ritual washing, is the use of yetilat yadayim – washing with a blessing for the elevation of the hands that is taken from the Talmud. Though there are different types of washing the one most people associate mentally with is washing with a blessing before a meal (in which bread is eaten).
Though ritual washing would be an important topic about Judaism noticed by foreign cultures and religions, the broad practice of ritual washing was not established until well after the destruction of the Temple. Rituals which were reserved for the priesthood in the Temple era would be memorialized in everyday practice, reintroduces as spiritual practices that the whole community of Israel would participate in as early as the 3rd century CE. A lot of these symbols became things that would take place around the table, a symbolic altar. Just as the rabbis instituted the blessing and salting of bread in honor of the holy sacrifices that were salted, we wash our hands before a meal just as the priest washed before their sacrificial service. We wash to rise to a spiritual occasion, not to remove germs or physical impurity. Though one needs clean hands for netilat yadayim, the blessing of the hands, it does not purify the hands; it sanctifies them, prepares them for spiritual use.
Scholars often note that the word netilat is a strange and uncommon word. One cannot escape that the word netilat does not mean to wash. To translate it as such would be incorrect. Notice when we say the blessing for the lulav the blessing of netilat lulav is recited; it doesn’t mean to wave the lulav, and most certainly it doesn’t mean to wash the lulav. Netilat is often understood by the scholars to mean to elevate. They notice that during the post-temple rabbinic age the people took to washing their hands by elevating them, washing to the wrist from a vessel. It was often assumed by linguists this practice came about by being suggested because such a uniquely styled vessel in the Greek speaking Mediterranean is called a natla (αντλίον), (and thus it is likewise named as such in Aramaic) was utilized for this purpose. (see Talmud Bavli, Brachot Chullin 107a)
The blessing makes more sense to us if we use the modern Hebrew understanding of what it means to netilah; it means to take, to receive, to accept something. But it doesn’t mean to take just in the sense of merely obtaining something; it can also mean to accept responsibility. As we wash our hands with a blessing we are taking our hands and accepting upon them responsibility to do righteousness and holiness with these hands.
The question that often arises for people when they are learning how to wash, is when do we say a blessing for washing. Some people assume that every time we wash, we say a blessing. This is not so. We wash with a blessing before a meal, because we are about to bless for eating. We are blessing in order to do a specific holy acts of blessing again over food and eating.
However, when we awake in the morning the first thing that we as proper people should do is to ready ourselves for the day. That means getting dressing and cleaning up; washing our face, brushing our teeth, etc. However, remember, as I stated the kabbalists have taught us one should not touch any orifices of their body with unclean hands upon awaking because it can bring harm to us.
Just as pious people do not walk four amot without a kippah (a yarmulke, a head covering) out of respect for G-d, pious Jews are of the practice of not walking more than four amot without washing to avoid harm. Though technically the rule of four amot can extend to the personal domain outside of one’s home, it is the practice of the pious to not walk more than four amot from their bed without washing. For this reason it is the custom of most Chassidim, and many Sephardim and mystics, to wash at the place one slept. Though one might reckon their reasons are for the purpose of being stringent in regard to the distance of four amot, the true impulse to doing so lies behind the spirit of the devout to not delay in doing a mitzvah. We should jump to perform a mitzvah as soon as we can, not putting it off. In enthusiasm to start doing works of holiness the pious make practice to wash at their bedside.
Now when one washed at their bedside, they do not need to recite the blessing of netilat yadayim, as they are not going to going to engage in any specific holy act immediately. In fact it is preferred by our rabbis that one merely wash to remove the spirit of impurity from ones hands; pouring clean water from a vessel over one hands, first the right then the left, alternating three times back and forth. The water should be allowed to flow into a bowl or basin, and disposed of in a place where one does not intended to walk; this impure water is specifically what we call negel vasser in Yiddish (lit. “nail water”), meaning dead and impure water.
Now that ones hands are clean they may go about washing and doing all their daily activities. We do not say a blessing because we are going to engage in our mundane activities. We reserve the blessing of netilat yadayim for after we are finished arising, specifically after we have evacuated our bowels by going to the restroom and after saying the appropriate blessing of asher yatzar, we pair those two blessings together. Being relieved and refreshed, we wash with a blessing in order to go about the rest of our spiritual and worldly obligations. But this is a topic we will discuss more in detail next time, when we discuss the blessing of Asher Yatzar.
Question: Why do wash?
Answer: In order to remove an impure and unenlightened spirit of slumber.
Question: How often do we need to wash in this manner?
Answer: After every time we sleep we wash.
Question: Do we wash with a blessing?
Answer: When we arise we do not need to wash with a blessing.
Question: What if there is no water for washing available?
Answer: One should rub their hands together with a dry clean substance such as dirt or sand .
1 – See Ecclesiastes 12:13
2 – This is in agreement with the Rashba (Rabbi Shlomo ben Aderet of 11th century Spain), vol. 1, §190, and §595.
3 – See Shulchan Aruch haRav 4:3, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi.
4 – See Shulchan Aruch haRav 4:3